Skip to content

Holy Spirit

White dove flying

Sunday 19 May
Year B, Pentecost, Whit Sunday: Red


(The Sunday after Ascension Day)

  • Psalm 104: 25-35, 37
  • [Ezekiel 37: 1-14]
  • Acts 2: 1-21*
  • Romans 8: 22-27
  • John 15: 26-27, 16: 4b-15

(The reading from Acts should be used as either the first or second reading.)


Pentecost (from the Greek for fiftieth or fifty days) has its roots in the Jewish Feast of Weeks or Shavuot, which takes place fifty days after Passover and traditionally celebrated the wheat harvest. For us, Pentecost celebrates both the inauguration of the Christian church and the sending of the Holy Spirit to empower it.

The Holy Spirit is sometimes called the Cinderella of the Trinity (about which more next week) but for me it has always been the most accessible, relatable and compelling aspect of God. Perhaps that is because it was a religious experience that led to me becoming a Christian. Or maybe it is because, while the dominant models and metaphors for God and Christ are largely (although not exclusively) masculine, the central ideas around the Spirit; ruach, shekinah and hokhmah, are all in the original Hebrew, female. 

There are at least three words used to translate the Hebrew ruach; ‘wind’, ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’. The Old Testament writers are careful not to identify God directly with the natural phenomenon of wind. Rather they associate the surging power of the wind with God’s power. When ruach is translated breath, it is associating it with the giving of life through creation, as when God breathed life into Adam, and into the dry bones in today’s reading from Ezekiel. The third way ruach is translated in the Old Testament is as charism, the filling of an individual by the spirit of God with gifts, military prowess or prophecy.

Shekinah is a term which appears in the Jewish Tulmad and Midrash. It refers to the dwelling or settling of the presence of God’s feminine aspect in a place, for example a mountain, tabernacle or Temple.

Hokhmah (Sophia in Greek) is the Old Testament name for the personification of wisdom. In Proverbs 8 we read that she was by God’s side at the beginning of creation.

These feminine words used to describe God were lost as theology and translations evolved. Biblical Greek translates spirit as the neutral pneuma and Latin renders her the masculine spiritus. (This process was heavily influenced by the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. Again, more on this next week.) 

So now, our usual translations of scripture do not reflect the Holy Spirit as female, and neither do the vast majority of liturgies, worship songs or hymns.


Of course, it is argued that technically, the symbolic gender of words does not relate to their actually meaning; for example, the word ‘mankind’ includes all humanity etc. Nevertheless, I for one get really fed up with having to continually adjust for this. I also think it can diminish and distort what we say about God in an unhelpful and increasingly off-putting way.

The reading from Acts describes how after Jesus ascended from his embodied time on earth the new community of believers is formed and filled with life through the Spirit. This beginning is marked by perfect communication, with all people being able to understand each other, whatever their native tongue.

That was certainly a good example of inclusive language!


When reading a passage about the Holy Spirit I sometimes change all of the ‘him’s and ‘he’s to ‘her’s and ‘she’s. Try it sometime, perhaps with this week’s Gospel reading, and see what a different feel it brings to the words.